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Somme centenary: Updates from the New Zealand commemorations in France

By Kieran Campbell

(All times New Zealand. France is 10 hours behind.)

9.45pm: Prince Charles has paid tribute to the New Zealand men who fought on this "infernal blasted wasteland" 100 years ago. He waited the former Prince of Wales, his great uncle Edward, who described the battle as the "nearest approach to hell imaginable".

He said the Battle of the Somme confirmed the reputation of New Zealand soldiers of having "boundless courage and tenacity".

"What occurred here 100 years ago did not create national character, it revealed it," he said.

9.30pm Defence Minister Gerry Brownlee spoke of his personal connection to the war, with the grave of his great-uncle cared for by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission responsible for thousands of cemeteries across the world.

He recalled the words of a former Longueval mayor who honoured the New Zealand men who helped defend their town.

"Your sons and ours died for the same cause of justice and liberty under the same flag ... And we shall never forget."

9.10pm: Prince Charles has arrived at the Caterpillar Valley Cemetery for the memorial to mark the centenary of New Zealand's participation in the Battle of the Somme.

Dressed in full New Zealand military garb, the Prince of Wales was led into the cemetery by the New Zealand Defence Force Maori Cultural Group assembled in a spear shape, karakia (prayer) karanga (a spiritual call) simultaneously with clearance from a warrior in the front.

He was introduced by Ambassador James Kember to chief of defence Lieutenant General Tim Keating, Defence Minister Gerry Brownlee, French Secretary of State for Veterans' Affairs Jean-Marc Todeschini, Military Governor Lille, Philippe de Mester General Thierry Coqueblin, Longueval mayor Jany Fournier, and Flers mayor Pierrick Capelle.

Hundreds have gathered, many with badges pinned to their chest, at the cemetery that commemorates 1200 New Zealand soldiers who died at the Somme and whose graves are not known.

8.10pm: Bob Hill, the vice president of the New Zealand RSA, said he was shocked when he read the graphic detail of the unnamed soldier's diary he was asked to present at the dawn service.

"I must admit when I was first given that to read I thought 'goodness gracious'. It's so hard to think back and put yourself in their place.

"All the readings said it the way it was and not the way some people might like to hear it. It was graphic but it was true."

Hill said it was important on the centenary of the Battle of the Somme that New Zealanders heard the confronting descriptions of what was experienced in battle.

"I served in Borneo and Vietnam and even that compared to what these people put up with, it's chalk and cheese.

"I think it's important that it's told the way it was and not just in pretty words. We need to know just what these people put up with and the sacrifices they made before we can move on."

Rebecca Nelson wore a cloak weaved of New Zealand bird feathers. Photo / Kieran Campbell
Rebecca Nelson wore a cloak weaved of New Zealand bird feathers. Photo / Kieran Campbell

8.00pm: Able musician Rebecca Nelson, who wore a cloak weaved of New Zealand bird feathers, said she cried in the days leading up to the ceremony.

"I look at it as a proud kiwi moment, and so I get all the emotion out days before, I cry days before.

"I'm singing for my country, I just breathe through it.

"This cloak represents the New Zealand Defence Force, the past and the present through every single commemoration and war."

The blue feathers represent the oceans crossed by New Zealanders heading to battle and Gallipoli where weaving of the cloak began at its centenary last year. The green and yellow represent the land travelled through Europe by troops and finally the red represent the soldiers who gave the ultimate sacrifice.

"And every soldier. Not just New Zealanders, every soldier," Nelson said.

Being the voice of the dawn ceremony was an immense honour for the 28-year-old Auckland singer, who only three years ago was scouted while busking in Devonport.

Today she roused those commemorating with renditions of the New Zealand and French national anthems and hymns as the sun rose over Somme.

"I love singing and I love being the voice of a nation, to help people remember.

"When I sing I sing for us but I also sing for the ones who aren't here and I just look out and go 'this is for you'."

New Zealand officers before the ceremony to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the Battle of the Somme in the New Zealand Battlefield Memorial in Longueval. Photo / AP
New Zealand officers before the ceremony to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the Battle of the Somme in the New Zealand Battlefield Memorial in Longueval. Photo / AP

6.35pm: Bob Hill, the vice president of the New Zealand RSA, read the diary of an unnamed soldier describing the agony of watching his mates die:

"A new battlefield has a smell very hard to explain. High explosives ... Gasses, mixed with rotting corpses. A rotten egg being rammed down one's throat may come near it. If the civilian police could bottle the smell it would be a great thing for breaking up riots.

"A wild screech, a crash ... The mud was our saviour. We were plastered with it. I had a piece of mud the size of my two fists ... My tongue and lips were dry. Had the ground been hard we would have been blown to pieces.

"A corporal from another battery had been killed during the night. The body is lying on the road. The ammunition wagons are running over him.

"This particular bit of road is under direct observation and we do it at a gallop. It would be suicide for us to stop to remove the body ... (four days later) he is still where he fell.

"Going in this afternoon, the wheels went right down his backbone, the head became adrift from the body and was pushed out of sight in the mud. Another New Zealander who will be reported missing, believed killed in action."

Video

6.10pm: During the service, New Zealand's chief of defence, Lieutenant-General Tim Keating, paid tribute to the thousands of casualties that occurred during the battle.

"Body parts were scattered over the fields. For many death did not come instantly but followed a lingering agony.

"Private William Enis wrote home to the family of his friend Harry how he was mutilated by a shell on the first day. 'It was a godsend when he died', he told Harry's father, 'as he must have suffered. And I think you'd have said the same if you had seen him'."

Keating said the mental and physical fatigue experienced by the soldiers was "difficult to overstate".

Video

5.56pm: The dawn service has ended and participants are preparing for the walk back to Longueval. The walk is about 1.2km. Soon there will be a French memorial service in the town. That will be followed by a informal breakfast. There will be two further ceremonies marking today's centenary.

5.42pm: The ceremony is coming towards a conclusion and the Last Post has been sounded.

5.24pm: Able Musician Nelson is wearing a cloak made of feathers from New Zealand birds. The cloak was started last year at Gallipoli.

5.18pm: The New Zealand and French national anthems were sung by Rebecca Nelson.

5.07pm:About 250 people are in position at the memorial for the dawn service.

4.59pm:

Dawn has broken and the New Zealand Defence Force Maori Cultural Group is now leading the march from Longueval to the battlefield memorial.


4.49pm:

Among the New Zealanders who have made the long journey to Europe is Emma Kynaston.

The 18-year-old Warrant Officer of the New Zealand Cadet Forces, took a badge with her to the Somme.

A century ago it was pinned to the hat of her great-great-uncle Alfred Kynaston from Otago, who was among the first New Zealand soldiers to enter the battle.

Emma Kynaston, 18, of the New Zealand Cadet Forces. She's holding a badge from the cap worn by her great-great-uncle Alfred Kynaston when he entered the Battle of the Somme. Photo / NZDF
Emma Kynaston, 18, of the New Zealand Cadet Forces. She's holding a badge from the cap worn by her great-great-uncle Alfred Kynaston when he entered the Battle of the Somme. Photo / NZDF

"We went up and saw the exact fields he would have fought on and it was quite emotional," said Kynaston, from Nelson.

"I think back to what it would have been like 100 years ago and try to imagine the scene in front of me and imagine him on those battlefields.

"I would hope that he'd be very proud that we're still remembering him 100 years later."

4.42pm: Daylight is still a way away as the parade continues to assemble. It's 6.42am in France - 6.01am was the exact time that thousands of young New Zealand men prepared to leave their trenches and go 'over the top' into No Man's Land.

The casualty figures from the battle have lost none of their ability to shock. Of the 15,000 Kiwis who took part in the battle in a period lasting less than a month, more than 2000 died and another 6000 were injured.

6.01am: It was exactly this time today 100 years ago that thousands of young NZ men prepared to enter the Battle of the Somme

4.15pm: Dozens of people are preparing for a slow march from Longueval to the New Zealand Battlefield Memorial which honours the sacrifice of thousands of New Zealand soliders at the Battle of the Somme.

A light dew is covering the ground ahead of the dawn service, the first of three ceremonies today, and the morning air is crisp.


It was at daybreak on September 15, 1916 that New Zealand troops made their first frontline assault in what was then the deadliest battle the country had seen.

The New Zealand Defence Force Maori Cultural Group will lead the sombre procession from the tiny northern French town to the memorial about 1.2km away.

Drums will mark daybreak as those who gather remember the battlefield that a century ago occupied the land where they stand this morning.

- NZ Herald

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